Is Your Kid Obsessed with Food? How to Spot and Stop Compulsive Eating
Here's the thing: If your child eats compulsively, it may be a way to tune out (Is there trouble at home?) or escape when life gets stressful (Problems at school?). You and your family doctor need to get at those feelings and help your child develop ways to cope with them.
Most of the time, you'll find compulsive eating has nothing to do with hunger. It's a habit kids—and adults—develop to ease stress, depression, anxiety or even boredom. The other day, my daughter told me she was hungry just an hour after she had eaten. Turns out she was bored and didn't know what to do with herself. I pulled out a puzzle, and we got busy on that. So much for being hungry.
My advice? Get in prevention mode now so you don't have an unhappy, unhealthy child in a few years and a miserable young adult a few years after that. Trust me, I know what you're up against: Your kids have friends who are allowed to eat a steady diet of food from your not-a-chance list ("But mom, all my friends eat chips and onion dip after school.") and TV commercials touting the latest fat-filled lunch box junk.
Then there's the other extreme: My son Eric had a friend over and I walked into the kitchen to find him going through my cabinets. He confessed he was looking for the "candy junk closet" and was surprised when I said we didn't have one. Turns out he was so deprived of any treats in his home that he prowled friends' kitchens. You need to be careful not to be the food police to the point of deprivation.
Prevent obsessive eating with healthy habits
When It's Time to Eat, Eat
Talking is fine—even encouraged—at mealtimes. Just make sure your kids sit down to eat at the table or breakfast bar, not in front of the TV or while playing Wii, and that they aren't absentmindedly snacking while doing something else like coloring. It's too easy to lose track of what's going in the mouth.
Bite Your Tongue
Never say, "Clean your plate." Don't force your child to eat. Left alone, most kids self-regulate and will eat when they need to.
Don't Use Food as a Reward
You don't want kids to learn to eat when they're not hungry.
Be a Brilliant Role Model
If you curl up with a bag of buttered popcorn to watch TV, your child will imitate you in a heartbeat.
If your child wants an ice cream cone, go for it. But get a small or kid-size portion, not four scoops. Nobody—and that includes you and me—needs that.
Kids shouldn't eat an entire steak or a double hamburger, or think meals are all about the meat. Offers big sides of veggies and fruits.
Get Rid of Sweet Drinks
They have zero nutrition. Make your house a no-soda zone—your dentist will adore you—and I'd nix energy drinks too. Serve water or nonfat milk with meals instead.
In our house, it's a once-in-a-while event. But we do have healthy snacks after dinner, like watermelon.
Does your child already have a food addiction? It's not too late to help
- Try to figure out what's really going on. Is it really about the food? Not likely. Is it something else, like a plea for attention? If you think it is emotional eating, ask your child if he's sad or angry. Try to suss out the obsessive eating trigger.
- Get physical by making activity a fun family affair. Try bike rides, Frisbee contests, skateboarding, gym swims, hoops (both basketball and hula). Whatever you like doing together, do it. It's a physical-mental lift for everyone.
- Teach kids to cook. By letting your child help you choose recipes, shop and make healthy meals, you can pass on a love of good ingredients.
- Buy your older kids a diary. If your child is mature enough, have her start a food journal—writing down what she feels when she eats while and listing everything she consumes.
- Enlist your family doc. Research backs this up: Kids with weight problems make progress if they're seen by their doctors more frequently. If a child needs to trim down, I suggest checkups every three to four months that include talks about food choices and physical activity.
- Explain the risks and dangers of overeating in an age-appropriate way. You know the list: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, embarrassment, ugly teasing and more go along with unhealthy, addictive eating habits.
- Find an expert. If you think your child is obsessed with food or is anorexic or bulimic, talk to your doctor about finding a psychologist trained in eating disorders.
Does your child struggle with food? What are you doing to promote healthy food relationships in your family? Share your advice for other parents in the comments area below.
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